Anthrohistory: Unsettling Knowledge, Questioning Discipline

Anthrohistory: Unsettling Knowledge, Questioning Discipline

by David Cohen

A volume at the crossroads of History and AnthropologySee more details below


A volume at the crossroads of History and Anthropology

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University of Michigan Press
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Unsettling Knowledge, Questioning Discipline


Copyright © 2011 University of Michigan
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-472-05135-9

Chapter One

Chandra D. Bhimull, Edward Murphy, and Monica Eileen Patterson

A Prefatory Piece

In the 1950s, anthropologists, who had long been accustomed to bracketing history, began to imagine an anthropology that would be, if anything, historical. Historians subsequently came to imagine new forms of history that would succeed only with the incorporation of insights and approaches from anthropology. Over the decades that followed, the exchanges of prominent anthropologists and historians would contribute important energy and direction to the fields of social history, cultural history, ethnohistory, microhistory, and historical anthropology.

In many instances, these exchanges formed part of intellectual movements that sought to rework and even radically change the ground on which academic work would stand. Beginning in the late 1970s, scholars influenced by the emergent currents of poststructuralism, postmodernism, and postcolonialism attempted to inhabit new spaces that would transcend inherited assumptions and practices constrained by unexamined power relations and provincial perspectives. Many of the interdisciplinary connections between anthropology and history nourished and fed off these currents. Historical anthropologists and anthropological historians were now taking part in a multidisciplinary dialogue that often spurred great debate within disciplines and led to the formation of a number of new interdisciplinary institutions, publications, and forums. This development helped university leaders promote fresh investments in the interdisciplinary as a viable means of reform and renovation in higher education. As interdisciplinary connections spread, they could take inspiration from a lesson that anthropologists and historians working together had often learned: that interdisciplinarity can make possible the creation of critically important, transformative intellectual projects.

Yet in spite of this, as scholars working between anthropology and history had also sometimes discovered, interdisciplinary projects bear the burden of legacies and contexts shaped in part by their disciplinary roots. They can frequently fail to find common dialogue and understanding. Practitioners of one discipline may borrow from another, but they do not necessarily engage deeply with the other's debates and complexities. Likewise, in seeking to reassert control over their disciplinary boundaries, both intellectual and institutional gatekeepers may end up excluding the perspectives of outside scholars. It is no wonder, then, that interdisciplinary projects are often short-lived and superficial. But even with these potential pitfalls, such projects nevertheless have the potential to open opportunities for critical reflection on the boundaries and possibilities of disciplinary formations. Crucially, they can help scholars who seek to create forms of knowledge that appropriately engage with their objects of study, rather than rotely following academic practices and expectations.

This volume presents work by scholars who embrace this impulse to produce engaged and reflexive scholarship at the crossroads of anthropology and history. As such, the volume is not a compilation of work by historical anthropologists and anthropological historians. We have neither sought to privilege one disciplinary perspective over the other nor have we attempted to confect a perfect equilibrium between anthropology and history. The collection instead features intellectuals whose work seeks to produce knowledge between and beyond the two disciplines. In doing so, the contributors have attempted to develop perspectives that not only transcend and unsettle the conventions and relationships that shape academic disciplinary fields, but also the broader fields of power that constrain intellectual production.

As a collection, the essays presented here attempt to practice anthrohistory, a transdisciplinary project that moves beyond a partial integration of the disciplines. The volume's contributors seek to bring anthropology and history together in order to build on the possibilities and insights of each while also resisting their constraints and limitations. In developing this critical space, Anthrohistory searches for ways to produce ethically responsible knowledge in a world riven by violence and dominative forms of power.

The authors who appear in this volume work in numerous academic settings, archives, and field sites around the world. Yet at some point in the past twenty years, each has had an intellectual connection to the Doctoral Program in Anthropology and History at the University of Michigan (subsequently referred to as "the Anthrohistory Program"). This program first formed in the late 1980s amidst the burst of enthusiasm for the interdisciplinary and reflexive work that began to gain traction in the 1970s and 1980s. It has persisted even as other interdisciplinary projects forged at the same moment have disappeared. In certain respects, the Anthrohistory Program has been a unique, ongoing experiment in interdisciplinarity, surviving despite changing dynamics in campus institutions and broader intellectual trends. Throughout, it has sought to be an expansive location of critical reflection that is relevant and resonant with scholarly work taking place across the globe.

While engaging its two academic departments and disciplines, the Anthrohistory Program has developed in an independent and interstitial space full of varied trajectories and openings. This volume is the culmination of a long-standing effort to take stock of this space. In 2004, scholars at the University of Michigan marked the fifteenth anniversary of the program by hosting a conference called "Trans/Formations of the Disciplines: Evaluating the Project of Anthropology and History" (see fig. 12.1). The conference was an effort to contextualize and assess the range of scholarship coming out of the Anthrohistory Program. To what extent, for example, had it succeeded in transcending the disciplinary constraints of anthropology and history? What were the broader transformations in both the academy and the world that had shaped how anthrohistorians could practice their crafts? How had this particular interdisciplinary configuration affected the experiences and scholarship of students and faculty who had taken part in it?

For participants, the answers to these questions, particularly the last one, were multiple. Although the Anthrohistory Program has always been small and at times it has tenuously clung to its institutional setting, it has nevertheless produced dozens of PhDs. These students have not only combined anthropology and history in often surprising and unforeseen ways, but they have also forged connections with scholars working in a number of other intellectual frameworks. Students (and their faculty advisers) have formed seemingly organic connections with scholars working in such areas as semiotics, archeology, subaltern studies, race, geography, museum studies, the environment, gender, the history of science, urban planning, and area studies, to name only some.

Despite their diverse and multidisciplinary experiences, however, participants in the conference also had a partially shared repertoire to draw on, facilitating the creation of an intense and at times unsettling dialogue. If research experiences for anthrohistorians are of great temporal and spatial breadth, they also form the basis for a deep intellectual and political engagement with specific circumstances and peoples, a process that inevitably transforms the researcher. While anthrohistorians have a set of authors that they loosely share, they also each engage with the perspectives of their own particular interlocutors. And as they search for openness and possibility in their intellectual pursuits, anthrohistorians also maintain a hard-edged commitment to producing responsible forms of knowledge.

The shared orientations that have been critical to the individual and collective work of scholars involved in anthrohistory were evident in the papers presented at the Trans/Formations conference. These orientations point to the varied ways in which anthrohistorians have grappled with a host of methodological, epistemological, ethical, and political questions that have challenged academics from across the humanities and social sciences for decades. They include imaginative thinking about the uses and valences of time and space in the interpretation of culture and history; serious attention to the worlds of people rendered outcast, subordinate, or marginal; inspired regard for connecting the material to the cultural; studied concern for the possibilities and limits of archives and sources; critical reflection on the privileged position of scholar, observer, teacher, and expert; and an unreticent experimentalism in the representation of life worlds found, understood, and reconstructed. Underscoring how shifting contexts and inequitable social formations shape scholarly work, the conference drew attention to critical questions of power and ethics in the production and uses of knowledge.

Most of the essays here bear threads back to the 2004 conference, but three—David William Cohen's, Fernando Coronil's, and the present preface— developed after the conference as the editors and many of the participants met on several occasions to consider further the possibilities and limitations of anthrohistorical work. We have located these three pieces as "Openings," as they each suggest directions that can guide readers through not only the particularities of Anthrohistory but also the more general ways that working through it can aid in developing politically engaged and ethically responsible scholarship.

The papers presented at the Trans/Formations conference primarily followed standard academic form, as conference participants produced essays designed for academic journals and, inevitably, personal professional advancement. The conference thus demonstrated how a number of academics trained in an anthrohistorical milieu had come to practice and produce their own forms of scholarship. While the essays comprising this volume are a follow-up to the conference, they respond to a different impulse, reflected in the fact that they are shorter and more evocative, exploratory, and explicitly reflexive.

The form of the essays is deliberate. There is, as Hayden White (1986) has insisted, a content to the form, and ours suggests central concerns and perspectives that emphasize the kind of anthrohistorical work we seek to produce. In the first instance, the experimental style is meant to free our contributors from the often taken-for-granted assumptions and practices of academic writing. This permits them to expand creatively on the possibilities of anthrohistorical work as they each attempt to engage critically with their own academic projects. In this way, each contributor provides both an opening for new approaches and a critical reflection on aspects of the state of anthrohistory and the currents of thought within which anthrohistorians engage. If "Openings" bookend the volume, they also take shape in each article, breaking down the conventional and often hierarchical dichotomy between editorial overview and contributing article.

The design and organization of the book's layout seek to foreground orientations and possibilities embodied in transdisciplinary, anthrohistorical work. The volume's sectional headings point to these orientations, and their interconnected thematics underscore the considerable overlap between the issues and concerns presented throughout the book. As the first part's title indicates, anthrohistorians are constantly "Encountering Boundaries." They must grapple with not only the boundaries of the disciplines, but also the multiple borders and frontiers that mark and shape social life as well. The heading also invokes the double sense of the word encounter, in terms of both experiencing boundaries and seeking to counter or transcend them. Our authors show that these boundaries often exist in surprising locations, as in the ways that imperial categories in sixteenth-century Venice resonate with current assumptions about subjectivity and difference, or in how understandings of the future affect forms of analysis and narrative in anthropology and history.

Similarly, "Unsettling Knowledge" suggests that knowledge needs to be problematized and taken away from its comfortable or convenient status. At the same time, the pieces in this section also address knowledge that is itself unsettling; knowledge that disturbs, troubles, and perdures, as in the debris of Hurricane Katrina, the demeaning of the Yanomami in South America, or the presence of the dead in South Africa. In "Questioning Discipline" our authors not only unsettle the conventions, norms, and assumptions of disciplinary boundaries, but they also probe the strengths of disciplinary power as they attempt to build a discipline better equipped to pose critical questions. Such building and unsettling can happen while evaluating the dynamics of a North American history department, considering the dilemmas of governance in former English colonial contexts, or probing the value of adopting analytical approaches that are historicist or phenomenological in nature.

Building and unsettling require support. Attempting to recognize all who helped make this volume possible is a seemingly impossible task. Such recognition might begin with an absurdly long list that would demonstrate the multiple schools of thought and the varied thinkers who have sustained the analytical engagements of Anthrohistory. The list would include a number of social thinkers who have inspired critical work across disciplinary boundaries and broader sociopolitical domains. It would acknowledge scholars who, at different moments and with different levels of intensity, forged connections between anthropology and history. It would recognize the fact that the engagements of anthropologists and historians were thickly involved with all the significant "turns" of the past thirty years in the humanities and social sciences: literary, cultural, linguistic, and historical.

Such a list would underscore the varied and yet often interconnected intellectual fields within which the anthrohistorians in this volume tread. It would recognize the fundamental and expansive role of the past in shaping the institutional cultures and academic projects of the present. It would emphasize, as any good microhistory must, how the view of the small and the particular opens up vistas that are extensive and vast. Such acknowledgments would be simultaneously celebratory and cautious, appreciative and yet unsatisfied. They would indicate that the scholars involved in the project of anthropology and history have produced their own scholarship, but not under conditions of their own choosing.

Ultimately, such a list would be contrary to the conventional practices of compiling acknowledgments in academic work. It would, moreover, be inadequate and incomplete. We tried to create one, yet with continuing consideration it never ceased to demand new entries. We struggled to identify our shared influences as we battled over which individuals to include. There was no clear or singular genealogy from which to construct an essential list of interlocutors for the project of anthrohistory. While the debts that anthrohistorians owe do point to a shared academic orbit, they also suggest an inchoate and expansive dialogue, one that can encompass connections across many temporal, spatial, and epistemological boundaries. How might one, for example, acknowledge an intellectual movement that may have traveled from Franz Boas, Carlo Ginzburg, and Carolyn Kay Steedman to Walter Benjamin, Joan Scott, and Dipesh Chakrabarty?

In the end, we can only nod to these broad and diverse connections, limiting ourselves here to a more conventional, if no less deserved recognition of specific individuals and institutional bodies. Since the Anthrohistory Program is small and has minimal overhead, the sustained participation of faculty and students has been essential to the work that has made this book possible. The people involved in the program and in this volume have grown accustomed to intermittent and at times frenzied planning sessions, marathon meetings, long e-mail exchanges, and the writing of numerous grant proposals and reports. If much labor power has been spent negotiating these often bureaucratic pathways, it has nevertheless led to extensive funding, a testament to the University of Michigan's commitment to interdisciplinary work.


Excerpted from Anthrohistory Copyright © 2011 by University of Michigan . Excerpted by permission of THE UNIVERSITY OF MICHIGAN PRESS. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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